There’s a strong argument that vodka is America’s spirit. It doesn’t have a homegrown American story like bourbon, or the long colonial history of rum. Vodka, in the American mindset, lacks the prestige of wine or the ubiquitousness of beer. Yet it’s the most consumed liquor in the country, and an American vodka was recently named the best vodka in the world by the World Drink Awards.
The story of how vodka became America’s spirit starts more than 150 years ago. The world was shrinking in antebellum America. Major newspapers in cities across the country were printing tales of international travel and adventure. The population wasn’t quite the haven for immigrants it would eventually become. Most of the population couldn’t even stand one another at the time. But people were interested in what was going on outside the border, and stories of other cultures drew readers to the papers.
That’s how Americans first heard about vodka — in newspapers describing Russia, of course. In the New York Herald in 1859, an unnamed writer traveled to Russia and found a vodka-loving workforce. Very vodka loving, in fact.
“Though they receive rations of vodka, and extra rations on holidays, the fact of a Russian soldier or sailor ever having refused ‘another glass’ is unheard of,” he writes. “Intoxication is, of course, quite common, and no fines, arrest or castigation have any effect in suppressing it.” When the drunkenness became too much and soldiers had to choose between alcohol or punishment, “soldiers often declare their willingness to take two or three hundred lashes more, if they can but get another bottle of liquor.”
Vodka continued to be a Russian oddity throughout the rest of the 1800s. In an effort to describe the liquor to an American audience in 1871, a writer in the Vermont Watchman and State Journal described a “half-gallon of vodka” as “corn brandy.”
But as America become more of an immigrant nation, the population’s drink choices expanded. In 1907, a writer for Oregon’s The Morning Astorian wrote a story called “Foreign Tastes Imported.” The writer said that the “flood” of immigrants coming into the country “has brought with it in the way of flotsam and jetsam a host of strange liquors, with weird names and subtle effects.” Among that flotsam and jetsam were the Russians and their vodka.
“The thousands of Russians who for the past few years have been flocking to the United States, must have their vodka” the article reads. “Vodka,” it explains, “is a species of whisky or brandy distilled generally from rye, but sometimes made from potatoes. An experience with it furnishes a complete and sufficient explanation for the prevalence of revolution, anarchy, and terrorism in the land of the Czar.”
It wasn’t until America found a new ally in Russia during World War II that the spirit really took off. That’s when vodka found its place in Americans’ hearts thanks to a businessman named John Martin and a boutique Russian vodka called Smirnoff.
Martin had recently purchased the brand and was looking for a way to capitalize on all things Russian. He took his vodka and some ginger beer, put it in a mug, and called it the Moscow Mule. It was a hit that set vodka on a path of upward mobility that even the Cold War couldn’t slow down.
Celebrities jumped on board, as Boise Weekly reports. Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and Zsa Zsa Gabor endorsed the product. Sean Connery as James Bond asked for his Smirnoff vodka martini “shaken, not stirred.”
The rest is history. Since 1970, vodka has been the most consumed liquor by volume. Today, 32 percent of the liquor market is vodka, vodka author Victorino Matus told The Federalist. American vodka brands are rising in both status and in volume. It was a long time coming, but it’s safe to say that vodka truly is America’s spirit.